by David Schwartz

Dr. Ira “Ike” Levine, president of the Algae Foundation

Dr. Ira “Ike” Levine, president of the Algae Foundation

Dr. Ira “Ike” Levine is a tenured professor of Natural and Applied Science at the University of Southern Maine. No stranger to algae, he brings 25+ years of applied algal farming, cultivar enhancement and new product development together with 15+ years of academic appointments including work in the Chemistry Department of the University of Hawaii; Biology Department of Duke University; and Biology Department of Chaminade University.

Ike received his master’s at the University of South Florida’s School of Marine Science under one of our country’s last great naturalists, Dr. Harold J. Humm, and his doctorate from the University of Hawaii, studying with the father of commercial algal farming, Dr. Maxwell Doty.

Most recently, Dr. Levine was selected as the President of the Algae Foundation, a nonprofit focused on the transformational qualities of algae in an ecologically challenged, global ecosystem. Ike’s selection was on target, as his efforts over the years have concentrated around providing students with understanding and exposure to the world of algae, raising the algal literacy awareness rate, and developing outreach and extension training for the next generation of algal scientists, farmers, aquaculturists and marketers.

At the recent Algal Biofuels Summit Ike officially launched the Algae Foundation to the 650 or so algae professionals in attendance. We spoke with him about where the concept of the Foundation originated and the purpose and goals he sees for it.

How did the Algae Foundation start?

The Algae Foundation was an offshoot from the ABO Board. They wanted to have an educational and information transfer component – a non-profit component – that could give grants. At the end of January we formed a 501 C-3 based out of Minnesota. We have a board of directors, composed of commercial people, national lab people, academics like myself, whose sole purpose is to raise money to support our educational initiatives.

What have been the first steps?

The first initiative was last year’s silent auction that raised the money for seven ABS travel grants for the best seven students who had posters. This year we raised $6000 and we’ll be able to bring 10 or 12 students to ABS next year.

We also raised money from Fedex to support the next generation of industrial standards. We have a publication that we’ve revised and expanded and it will be published by the end of the year. That is so the industry, with all the different backgrounds, can talk the same technical language – like how do you measure yield? How do you measure productivity? It will need to be updated occasionally as the industry moves forward.

The Foundation's library, holding collections such as the classic diatom literature from retiring professor emeritus at Montana State U., Dr. Keith Cooksey, is currently housed at Dr. Levine's laboratory at the University of Southern Maine.

The Foundation’s library, holding collections such as the classic diatom literature from retiring professor emeritus at Montana State U., Dr. Keith Cooksey, is currently housed at Dr. Levine’s laboratory at the University of Southern Maine.

And what kind of educational initiatives are you developing?

Our bigger initiatives are about curriculum – how to train the next generation of algae scientists, algal technicians and other professionals to populate the industry. When all the companies start going commercial, where are the workers going to come from?

We’re hopeful that the Department of Energy will support the Foundation developing a community college/technical college two-year curriculum for algal technicians and algal professionals. We’ll also develop a second program for retraining aquaculturists, like shrimp farmers and catfish farmers, on how to be algal farmers – through the USDA aquacultural extension programs.

Will this be freshly developed course material, or collecting existing programs from around the country?

We’ve always envisioned collaborating with all the existing efforts that are doing well around the country, and we have had some very productive meetings with ATP3, UC San Diego, North Dakota and others. They’re all very appreciative of us approaching them to collaborate, coordinate and solidify a single curriculum that is regionally based, that works for open systems and closed systems, cold water systems and warm water systems, desert and tropical humid climates.

What about internships for the students looking for real world experience?

We’re establishing a coordinated internship program where, for instance, instead of people from San Diego able to intern just at Sapphire, we’re trying to develop what the companies need and then have a mechanism whereby students from throughout the country can send us their CVs, their video interviews, and then we can match up their skill sets and desires for the future with the companies’ needs for internship efforts.

I’ve learned to respect the tremendous value of internships because, at my university, 80-85% of our internships are eventually hired by the companies where they’re interning. So I’d like to turn that opportunity nationally.

How does the Foundation’s internship program work?

The way it works now is that we develop a portfolio of needs from the companies, and then we might send them three potential video interviews and they would pick who they think is the most viable candidate, or perhaps interview two of them.

The Foundation was formed by the ABO, and there are quite a few ABO stalwarts involved, but what is the relationship between it and the ABO?

The Foundation is separate from the ABO. It is supported by the ABO, in that they donate the services of 20% of their Executive Director to us. Right now about 99.5% of all money raised goes to programs. So everyone is a volunteer for us.

Our administrative support is donated by the ABO, but our board is completely separate. There are some overlapping board members, but our corporate counsel has made it very clear that these are very separate efforts. The Foundation is not beholden to the ABO board, so if company x, who is not an ABO member, said “we need three interns – a molecular biologist, an aquaculturist, and an ag engineer,” we would send them potential candidates. It’s all about serving the students.

Other initiatives?

Another initiative is to develop what we call a repository for classic literature. Many of us who are getting a little grey have personal libraries that have been acquired over 30, 40, 50 years. In the old days, professors would give their libraries to their best students. In this digital age, maybe that model doesn’t always work, but there is a lot of value in these personal archives. For example, Keith Cooksey, retiring professor emeritus at Montana State U., recently donated his library of classic diatom literature to the Foundation.

Right now the library is at my university, in my laboratory. We have a physical reprint collection, and a database of that reprint collection. In the near future we will support an intern to digitize it and develop a more complete database. And as more libraries are donated, we’ll add those to the database, and make the database available online.

Some of these papers, the classic literature, are 150 and 200 years old, and some are in German, some in French, Japanese. We’re very glad to share them and very excited about the repository.

Has the Foundation’s website launched yet?

The website – – is in beta testing. It will include All About Algae, which was a huge effort paid for by the DOE and BIOS and several other organizations, in the site. ABO owned it, and they transferred the ownership to the Foundation, because it’s a purely educational effort. It’s a wonderful tool and we’ll expand it.

We’d also like to develop a traveling information booth to go to biomass events, to schools, and have a roving educational exhibit, perhaps with learning kits for different grades to demystify algae – to turn the “ick” into a “wow!”

And the Foundation has no particular bias as far as the many approaches to cultivation, harvesting, extraction or processing?

We are open to all approaches to algae cultivation and processing – we will go soup to nuts. This is a 5000 year-old effort, in terms of algal farming, micro and macro. And we want to be very clear this is not a micro-centric foundation, this is an algae-centric foundation. We are agnostic as far as cultivar, culture technique, harvesting, processing. And this is not fuel-oriented, it’s bioproduct oriented.

What do you see as the ultimate purpose of the Foundation?

Our model is that we will become the clearinghouse, the collaborator, the coordinator of all things educational, informational, informational transfer, and student mentorship for the next generation of algal professionals.

I’m confident that, without over reaching, without trying to get too big too fast, that we can prudently and responsibly grow the Foundation to be an effective organization to help move algae as a profession forward.

The Algae Foundation Board:

  • Dr. Ira “Ike” Levine, President
  • Pat Ahlm, Secretary
  • Tom Byrne, Treasurer
  • Dr. Amha Belay
  • Dr. Michael Lakeman
  • Dr. Greg Mitchell
  • Dr. Philip Pienkos
  • Mary Rosenthal